Jamaica country brief

Overview

Australia’s warm relations with Jamaica are based on shared historical, sporting, social and political ties, as well as our close cooperation in the Commonwealth and the United Nations. Sporting ties include a shared love of cricket and netball and international events, such as the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games.

Australia and Jamaica established diplomatic relations on 7 January 1974. The Australian High Commission in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, is accredited concurrently to Jamaica. Australia’s High Commission in the Caribbean was initially located in Kingston (1974 to 1994) before it moved to Bridgetown, Barbados (1994 to 2004), then to its current location in Port of Spain. Australia also maintains a resident Honorary Consul in Jamaica. Jamaica’s High Commissioner to Australia is resident in Tokyo, with an Honorary Consul in Sydney.

Australia has a small number of people identifying as of Jamaican descent (941 people, 2011 Census). A Jamaican is included in the records of arrival on the First Fleet and another, Arthur Windsor, was documented as dying at the Eureka Rebellion at Ballarat, Victoria, in 1854.

Jamaica is the third-largest island in the Caribbean. It is part of the Greater Antilles island chain in the north-west Caribbean. Its closest neighbours are Haiti, Cuba and the Cayman Islands.

Like many islands in the Caribbean, Jamaica was home to the Arawak people, also called the Taino, for some 2,500 years before European colonisation. Within a short time of Christopher Columbus claiming the island for Spain in 1494, most of the Arawak had been wiped out, either murdered for their land or dying from introduced diseases. England seized the island in 1655 and established a plantation economy, based on sugar, cocoa and coffee, and underpinned by forced labour from the slave trade. The abolition of slavery in 1834 freed 250,000 slaves, many of whom became small-acre farmers.

The population of Jamaica is approximately 2.97 million people (July 2016), comprised predominantly of descendants of the African slave population (92 per cent), East Indians (0.8 per cent) and people of mixed ethnicity (6.1 per cent). Most Jamaicans identify as Christian (mainly Protestant, but also Roman Catholic and Jehovah’s Witness). Rastafarians comprise 1.1 per cent of the population. English is the official language and Jamaica has the third-largest English-speaking population in the Americas after the United States and Canada. Jamaican Patois is a national language. The population growth rate is low (0.3 per cent), due to a low fertility rate and heavy emigration, mainly to the United States and Canada.

Political overview

In 1958, Jamaica joined other British Caribbean colonies to form the Federation of the West Indies. Jamaica gained full independence from the United Kingdom when it withdrew from the Federation in 1962 and subsequently joined the Commonwealth and the United Nations. It now functions as a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, with Queen Elizabeth II as Head of State, represented by the Governor General, and an elected Prime Minister as Head of Government.

System of government

Jamaica is a parliamentary democracy based on the Westminster system with a bicameral parliament. The House of Representatives contains 63 single-member constituencies elected for five-year terms. The Prime Minister is the head of the party with the most members elected to the House of Representatives.

The Senate comprises 21 members appointed by the Governor-General: thirteen on the advice of the Prime Minister and eight on the advice of the Leader of the Opposition. A minimum of two – and maximum of four – members of the Cabinet must be drawn from the Senate. The Judiciary comprises a Supreme Court whose judges are appointed by the Governor-General on the advice of the Prime Minister.

The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) was inaugurated in April 2005 to replace the British Privy Council as the highest court of appeal in the Caribbean region. The CCJ hears appeals as the court of last resort in both civil and criminal matters from those member states that have ceased to allow appeals to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Like most Caribbean countries, Jamaica is in the process of transitioning to the CCJ; legislation has not yet been passed for the CCJ to act in its appellate Jurisdiction. Countries currently under the jurisdiction of the CCJ include Barbados, Belize, Dominica, and Guyana.

Recent developments

Prime Minister Andrew Holness was elected in February 2016, as the leader of the Jamaica Labour Party. The next general election is due in 2021.

Foreign and trade policy

Given its relatively large population and one of the higher GDPs in the region, Jamaica plays an important role in the Caribbean. It is a senior member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) – the region's key political and trade grouping. Jamaica is a member of the Caribbean Single Market Economy (CSME) which allows the free trade of goods and services between CARICOM countries (except the Bahamas and Haiti, which have not joined) and the free movement of certain categories of labour. Jamaica is also a member of the Organization of American States (OAS); and the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), the group of 25 states that border or lay within the Caribbean Sea.

Bilateral relations

The Australia-Jamaican bilateral relationship is underpinned by sporting links and joint membership of various international organisations, including the Commonwealth and the United Nations.

The Australian Government has strengthened its ties with the Caribbean since it first established an active diplomatic presence in the region in the mid-1970s. In 2009, Australia formally established relations with CARICOM through a Memorandum of Understanding.

Australia has undertaken development assistance programs with Jamaica since the mid-1970s. Today, Jamaica benefits from Australia’s Direct Aid Program (DAP), managed by the Australian High Commission in Port of Spain. Since 2005, DAP has provided more than $500,000 in support to 25 community projects in Jamaica. Recent DAP projects have focused on coral reefs, agriculture in schools, inner-city youth and community health.

Economic overview

For the latest economic data and details on the bilateral economic and trade relationship between Australia and Trinidad and Tobago, refer to our Jamaica fact sheet [PDF].

Economic and trade policy directions

Historically, Jamaica's economy has been based on key primary industry exports, in particular bananas and sugar. In the 1940s, commercial deposits of bauxite, limestone, gypsum, marble, silica sand and clays were discovered and Jamaica was recognized as a globally significant exporter by the 1970s. Bauxite and alumina remain important to the Jamaican economy, comprising around sixty per cent of merchandise exports. The industry was been constrained by high energy costs and, since 2012, by the global decline of commodity prices. Jamaica is the world’s sixth-largest bauxite producer, behind Australia, China, Brazil, Guinea and India. Its main market is the United States.

Jamaica's economy is heavily dependent on services, which account for nearly 70 per cent of GDP. The country continues to derive most of its foreign exchange from tourism and remittances (each accounting for about 30 per cent of GDP) and bauxite/alumina (less than five per cent of GDP).

Trade accounts for around 50 per cent of GDP. Jamaica imports most of the goods it consumes, leading to consistent trade deficits of around 20 per cent of GDP. As well as bauxite/alumina, other exports include ethanol, cane sugar, alcoholic beverages, coffee, scrap metal, cyclic compounds and cassava. Jamaica's main trading partner is the United States (52 per cent of total trade). Other key partners include Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago, Canada, China, the United Kingdom, Brazil and Japan.

Economic outlook

Despite slight improvements in 2016 and 2017 due to increased tourism, lower energy costs and the end of a severe drought, Jamaica’s real GDP annual growth has averaged less than one per cent since 2011, and over the last thirty years, it has been one of the slowest-growing countries in the developing world. Unemployment, 13.7 per cent in 2016 and double that among the young, remains stubbornly high. One-fifth of the population lives in poverty and violent crime imposes sizable costs to society and business.

In 2013, the International Monetary Fund approved a four-year assistance loan of approximately USD 932 million, conditional on the government undertaking economic reforms. The Government faces the challenge of having to achieve fiscal discipline to maintain debt payments, while simultaneously attacking a serious crime problem that is hampering economic growth. Macroeconomic stability has been restored and growth performance is expected to improve marginally – the World Bank expects Jamaica to grow by one to two per cent over the medium term.

Regional

Since 2005, Jamaica has been party to Venezuela's Petro-Caribe scheme that provides preferential or deferred payment options for purchasing oil. As a debt consolidation measure, Jamaica purchased USD 3.25 billion in Petro Caribe debt from Venezuela for USD 1.5 billion.

Jamaica continues to play a leading role in the promotion of regional market integration. Jamaica was among the first countries to join the CSME when it first starting operating in 2006. The Caribbean Court of Justice acts as a CSME disputes mechanism.

Trade and investment

In 2016, the total two-way trade between Australia and Jamaica was approximately $16.5 million. Australia's exports to Jamaica were primarily lamb and beef. Main imports from Jamaica were rum and liqueurs.

High level visits

July 2017 – Foreign Minister Julie Bishop met Jamaica’s Foreign Minister Kamina Johnson-Smith in the margins of the Thirty-Eighth Regular Meeting of the Conference of the Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) in Grenada.

June 2017 – Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls, Dr Sharman Stone, visited Jamaica.

June 2015 – Environment Minister Greg Hunt visited Jamaica.

July 2014 – Australia's G20 Special Representative, Daniel Sloper, visited Jamaica.

January 2012 – Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Richard Marles, visited Jamaica.

Last Updated: 30 November 2017